CAIRO – Algeria have won the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations after Baghdad Bounedjah’s hugely deflected second-minute goal at the Cairo International Stadium proved enough to hand the North Africans a second-ever AFCON title.
Both teams had met in the group stages where Ismael Bennacer’s strike was enough to hand Algeria a 1-0 win and it was a similar score-line as Algeria held on under long periods of Senegalese pressure.
It is only the fifth Africa Cup of Nations final to have two African head coaches – and the first since 1998. And for Senegal boss Aliou Cisse, it was a heartbreaking result seeing as he had missed the decisive penalty in the shootout which cost Senegal the trophy in their only other trip to the final – in 2002 against Cameroon.
For Algeria, it was a third trip to the final and the first against a team, not Nigeria after they lost to the Super Eagles in 1980 and won against them in 1990.
The 2019 final, though, was an ill-tempered affair littered with fouls which tapered off disappointingly after an enterprising start with Algeria totaling 32 fouls at the end.
Algeria have always scored first in all six games at the AFCON and this time it took them just 79 seconds to get ahead through a hugely deflected goal.
Striker Baghdad Bounedjah took the ball past Senegal right-back Lamine Gassama, cut in from the left and hit a shot which took a giant deflection of centre-back Salif Sane before looping in a huge parabola over the stranded Alfred Gomis and dipping into the net at the last second when it seemed the ball was heading over the bar.
A pregnant silence had enveloped the Cairo International Stadium as the ball moved in seeming slow motion with Algerian fans numbering at least 15,000 erupting in a cacophony of noise as the ball nestled snugly in the bottom corner.
That early goal set expectations soaring with many believing the stage nicely set for a rip-roaring final. Fans of both sides were in fine voice but the fare on the field struggled to match the febrile atmosphere in the stands as the first half deteriorated in a foul and playacting bore-fest where Senegal saw plenty of the ball but did little with it while Algeria were content with committing fouls and playacting at every opportunity.
Senegal didn’t muster much of a reaction after going behind although they had the lion-share of possession, only threatening intermittently through set-pieces.
Henri Saivet on set-piece duty for the Teranga Lions wasted promising opportunities in the 20th and 21st minute and goalkeeper Alfred Gomis reacted smartly to save after Saivet had sighted him off his line in the 27th minute.
The fare on the pitch was dire but the fans in the stands were determined to have a good time and kept the atmosphere cackling with electricity.
Senegal had scored just a goal per game in all their knockout matches and that bluntness in front of goal showed as they struggled to put moves together, which in truth was hardly helped by Algeria constantly fouling at every slight opportunity.
Cameroonian referee Alioum Alioum finally had enough and booked Algeria’s Ramy Bensebaini for a dangerous tackle on Rennes team-mate Ismaila Sarr after thirty-three minutes.
Sofiane Feghouli then displayed an embarrassing feat of playacting in the 35th minute when he dropped to the ground in writhing pain after a slight nudge from Saido Mane as Senegal were about to take a corner.
Senegal found a bit of rhythm as the half neared a close with Mbaye Niang going close with a venomous volley on the turn that whistled narrowly over the bar with Gomis well beaten in the 39th minute. Then Saivet wasted yet another free-kick before a last-ditch tackle from Algeria prevented Papa Ndiaye from going through on goal on the stroke of half-time.
Senegal started with a bit more purpose in the second-half but Algeria were still intent on fouling their way through and it took just two minutes into the restart for the Desert Foxes to tally their fifteenth foul.
As Senegal probed, Mane had a great chance in the 58th minute when he executed a smart turn in box but his shot was misdirected and a few minutes later Saivet shot straight at Gomis from an umpteenth freekick.
It was all Senegal at this point and the Teranga Lions thought their persistence had finally paid off when Alioum pointed to the spot in the 60th minute after Ismaila Sarr’s cross found the arm of Algeria midfielder Adlene Guedioura.
But the penalty decision was overturned after a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) review with Alioum blowing for a drop ball instead as Algeria heaved a sigh of relief.
Senegal were not letting up as they pursued the equalizer that would keep them in the hunt for a first-ever title. Niang found himself on the end of a lovely through ball in the box but shot over from an acute angle after rounding Gomis in the 66th minute, three minutes later, Gomis had to make a fingertip save to deny Mane as the Terenga Lions laid siege to the Desert Foxes.
Senegal had another opportunity to restore parity seven minutes from time but Ismailla Sarr hit his volley in the box high into the stands as Algeria gamely held on.
And when referee Alioum Aliioum signaled for full time after five additional minutes, the outpouring of emotions from the stands and the sheer joy on the faces of the Algerian players told the story as what they had just accomplished – a second-ever AFCON title after a wait of nearly thirty years – dawned on them.
Senegal’s coach Aliou Cisse shares a lot of history with Algeria’s Djamel Belmadi. They both played for their countries in the early 2000s, were both born one day apart in March 1976, and both grew up in Champigny-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris.
But the title of African Champion can’t be shared and it was Belmadi who sailed off with into the Cairo lights with the one thing Cisse covets the most – the Africa Cup of Nations Trophy.